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4 major candidates for California U.S. Senate seat clash in first debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Four candidates for U.S. Senate debated in California last night. Three Democrats and one Republican were all on the same stage at the University of Southern California, all seeking a seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last year. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED was listening. Welcome.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Hey.

INSKEEP: So who wants this seat?

LAGOS: Well, we have four top candidates who got into this debate by polling. Three of them are Democratic members of Congress, Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee. And then you have a former Dodgers star, Steve Garvey, who threw his hat in the ring in the fall - former first baseman, has never run for office before and is running as a Republican.

INSKEEP: Quite a few well-known names there. Now, how does it come to be that they are all on the same stage, regardless of party?

LAGOS: Right, so California has a kind of interesting system. We have a top two or open primary. So the top two vote-getters in the March primary will move on to the November ballot regardless of party. So that's really sort of a do-or-die moment for all these candidates because if Steve Garvey can clinch a spot, it's kind of a cakewalk for the Democrat just given voter registration here in California. So the Democrats are really hoping to shut him out and have more of a contest in the fall.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. Or the other option, I suppose, is you have two Democrats who would end up getting to the top.

LAGOS: Exactly, and then we'll have a real race on our hands.

INSKEEP: OK, so how did the debate go last night?

LAGOS: Well, I would say there was a lot of attention on Steve Garvey, that Republican. You know, all three Democrats have pretty identical voting records in Congress, and they spent a lot of their time going after the Republican. The other thing, though, that I do think you see some daylight between them on is what's happening between Israel and Hamas. You really have kind of Schiff holding a very pro-Israel, staunch support line, Katie Porter somewhere in the middle, and Barbara Lee really far to the left. She's been calling for a cease-fire, really, since October. And, you know, that could stand to be an issue in this race. Here's Lee talking about what she calls an untenable current situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA LEE: Killing 25,000 civilians, it's catastrophic. And it will never lead to peace for the Israelis, nor the Palestinians.

LAGOS: And, you know, it's worth noting that as she was speaking, there was actually a protest outside on USC campus in support of the Palestinian cause.

INSKEEP: It is interesting that the war between Israel and Hamas would lead to some divisions among the Democratic candidates. How divisive is it for Democratic voters?

LAGOS: Well, we just saw polling here recently that showed it's really divisive. There is, you know, younger voters, voters of color really tend to side with or at least empathize more with the Palestinian side of things, whereas sort of older Democrats are really sort of more on the Israel side. And so I think you see that split between these candidates. And I think it is something that, if two Democrats end up in a runoff in November, could be an issue depending on where things stand in the Middle East at that time.

INSKEEP: Did the presidential race come up at all?

LAGOS: It did. You know, Steve Garvey is really trying to staddle a fine line on this. He says he's voted for the former president twice before, but he will not say whether he is going to vote for him again. And he got a lot of blowback. Here's what Katie Porter told him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE PORTER: Well, California, I think what they say is true - once a Dodger, always a Dodger.

INSKEEP: Ow.

LAGOS: It was not the only baseball reference we (laughter) heard last night, Steve. A lot of baseball references and a lot of, you know, attempts by these Democrats to really push Garvey not just on that, but on issues like abortion. He's been really reticent to take positions on a lot of this stuff, I think, hoping he can get in with both Republicans and some of those independent voters he would need.

INSKEEP: Political correspondent Marisa Lagos of KQED. Thanks so much.

LAGOS: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Marisa Lagos